NEVADA’S OWN TREASURE
The Mackay silver collection shines.
WRITTEN BY SHARON HONIG-BEAR
Students looking at the Mackay silver service displayed in Getchell Library at the
University of Nevada, Reno, circa 1962. Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno
The effect is immediate and takes your breath away. Downstairs in the W.M. Keck Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno, set in a dramatic display, is one of the most elaborate dinner sets ever created. To call these place settings doesn’t begin to do them justice: They are works of art.
The set, which represents the height of Victorian-era dining in America, was designed and executed for iconic Nevadan John W. Mackay (1831 – 1902). Mackay was one of the four Silver Kings, the four Irish Americans who made their fortunes on Nevada’s Comstock Lode at the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine. In 1877, Mackay shipped a half ton of silver to New York for Tiffany & Co. to design and produce a service out of it for his wife, Marie Louise. It took four boxcars to ship the bullion. The Mackays were establishing a home in Paris and wanted a dinner set that was certain to impress.
Charles Grosjean of Tiffany & Co. was the designer of the set, and silversmith Edward C. Moore supervised the project. It is reported that 200 craftsmen worked exclusively on the task for two years, logging more than one million hours total on the effort.
In 1878, when a stream of silverware began to arrive, it was clear the Mackays would bowl over their guests. The arrival of the nine walnut and mahogany chests must have looked like a parade. Ultimately, the set contained 1,250 pieces of sterling, providing dinner and dessert service for 24 people. It was described as the largest, grandest, most elegantly ornate, and most famous set of its time.
W.M. Keck Museum curator Garrett Barmore with University of
Nevada, Reno students. Photo courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno
As far back as the medieval era, the wealthy have dined to impress. Things heated up significantly in the early 19th century when Russian ambassador Alexander Kurakin took service à la russe, or in the Russian style, to France. This style of dining was marked by a succession of complicated courses, often a dozen or more. Place settings needed to step up, especially since the Russian style demanded that the quality of presentation equal that of the food itself. Menus were standard at the table, and place cards designated one’s seat. Etiquette books and a set of rigid, correct rules for cutlery, china, and table adornments soon followed. This was the world in which the Mackay family commissioned its silver service and which necessitated such arcane objects as celery vases, melon eaters, olive forks, ham holders, and more. Even empty, the silver goblets weighed just under a pound each.
Close-up of a tureen with the prominent MLM monogram. Photo courtesy of Silverperfect.com
Tiffany & Co. classifies the style of the silverware as Indian, referring to the workmanship of Persia and the Mogul Empire of India, as well as the dense overall decoration of Near Eastern metalwork. Each piece was individually decorated by hand in rich, floriated designs, which allowed the Mackays to add personal touches. The elegant interwoven monogram MLM — for Mary Louise Mackay, since tradition dictated that the silver belonged to the lady of the household — is prominent. Many of the items also feature the family crest for Mary Louise’s family, the Hungerfords. Drawing from the Mackays’ combined heritages, the designs also include the Irish shamrock, the Scottish thistle, and American garden and wildflowers.
It would be easy to call anything this ornate and extensive one of a kind, but in this case it is true. When the set was complete, John Mackay purchased the dies so that the set could never be duplicated. The family donated the 70 specimens on display at the Keck Museum at UNR — curator Garrett Barmore describes them as “the impractical pieces.”
The remaining items of the set are still held by the Mackay family, who live primarily in New York and Connecticut. Family lore says that as a new generation comes of age, each descendent in that generation receives part of the silver service; when the clan gets together at holidays, they are to bring their pieces and reconstruct the set.
Sugar and creamer set. Photo courtesy of Silverperfect.com
Occasionally, items from the set appear for sale. In 1998, Christie’s auctioned a Mackay punch bowl and ladle for a total price of $222,500. According to Barmore, UNR used the silver service until the 1980s, considering it the “state silver.” In fact, it was used in 1960 when President Truman visited the campus. Barmore says that the Keck staff has taken the advice of Tiffany archivists; it does not polish the set.
“It is no longer a service but is now an art piece,” Barmore says.
Interestingly, little is written about the set and the full story rests in the Tiffany archives, yet to be explored.
Victorian-era rules of etiquette stated that one should never make an ostentatious display of wealth. The Mackays clearly had no interest in following the rules. The MacKay silver is an opulent and artistic monument to high Victorian taste.
The Mackay silver can be viewed at the W.M. Keck Museum in the Mackay School of Mines building on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
1664 N. Virginia St., Reno • 775-784-4528 • Unr.edu/keck
Open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Mon. – Fri., and noon – 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. Closed on university holidays. Admission is free.